I’ve seen only two films by Chinese documentary maker Wang Bing, but on the basis of ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (which played at Facets in 2016) and Bitter Money (which opens there today for a weeklong run), I’d aver that he’s one of the most exciting nonfiction filmmakers working today. Both movies deliver powerful lessons about injustice in contemporary China; they’re also immersive, formally challenging works that employ extended running times to make viewers think long and hard about what it’s like to live as the onscreen subjects do. Running nearly four hours, Madness took audiences into a run-down mental institution in the Yunnan province, forcing them to linger there alongside the inmates (many of whom are not mentally ill, but are in fact political prisoners). In Bitter Money, which runs a little under three hours, Wang considers the textile industry in the eastern city of Huzhou, where (according to a final title card) more than 300,000 laborers live. No less than Madness, it’s a film about confinement: the subjects here are trapped in a ruthless economic system.
For its first half-hour or so, Bitter Money follows a teenage girl from a rural village as she travels to Huzhou, starts work at a small clothing factory, and gets situated in a cramped apartment building that she shares with several other laborers. Wang gives a sense of how far she has to travel for employment, with extended scenes on a bus and a train that show parts of her journey. Along the way, she meets another young woman with an infant in tow. She asks the mother why other family members can’t care for the child while she finds work; the mother replies that her grandmother is already caring for another relative’s children and can’t support another. This encounter spotlights the tenuous bonds within lower-class Chinese families, which can be severed by economic forces. That the young mother disappears from the film no sooner than she’s introduced conveys how members of the working-class are seen as disposable in the current economy—a theme that Wang explores in greater depth as the movie develops.
The teenage girl also disappears from the narrative not long after she begins her job at the clothing workshop. After showing her in conversation with a slightly older coworker, Wang follows the coworker as she leaves the workshop, checks in with her neighbors, and goes to confront her abusive husband, who recently kicked her out of their apartment. The confrontation accounts for Bitter Money’s longest and most powerful individual sequence. For nearly 20 minutes, Wang considers a heated conflict between husband and wife, the man growing increasingly violent as his spouse refuses to leave their shop. The husband threatens to kill his wife and even chokes her at a few points in the argument. More shockingly, none of the husband’s friends, who have been hanging around, intervene for several minutes; everyone watches passively while the abusive encounter proceeds. It’s an upsetting portrait of cultural stagnation, with the subjects defined by apathy, rage, or depression.
These emotions grow more pronounced as Wang profiles the daily lives of other workshop employees. Through interviews the director reveals that some of them work more than 12 hours a day and that most of them have failed to save anything from their employment. Everyone lives hand to mouth, concerned with having enough to feed themselves after sending money home to their families. When the larger factories send their employees home for vacation, some of the workshop employees stay behind to take their jobs for a few weeks. Wang records one woman expressing thanks for the extra work; it’s a sad moment, showing how her life revolves around making money. Late in the film, another workshop employee describes being fired for working too slowly. Unable to meet daily quotas, he’s considered expendable by his profit-minded boss. Wang’s last view of this man shows him collecting his belongings and taking off for another town, where the promise of temporary work awaits at another factory.
Despite its air of desperation, Bitter Money is never less than engrossing. Wang keeps you on your toes by shifting focus from one subject to another when you least expect it, and the cumulative effect of the various portraits is an eye-opening. One comes away from the film with a deeper understanding of how China’s working poor live—or, rather, fail to live: consumed by constantly having to work. The film also considers some of that work through scenes of repetitive labor at sewing machines, and these moments are strangely compelling; Wang holds shots on employees until their work becomes mesmerizing, giving a sense of what it’s like to lose oneself in labor. This ties into Bitter Money’s larger theme of how working-poor Chinese lose their identities on a daily basis. By the end of this masterful work, you may find yourself as acclimated to the tragedy as the subjects are.